WOW, I can’t believe 7 weeks has come and gone in such a flash! At the end of October we were gearing up for our next stop after Vietnam: India. Now it’s almost Christmas and it seems India is fading fast into memories as we try to balance relaying our past month’s adventures via the blog and maintaining presence in the current moment here at our next stop on the itinerary: Thailand.
I guess I (Kirsten) have also been procrastinating a bit on writing about India. Mainly because the task of describing such a complex country with any aptitude seems near impossible, and definitely one that would be better suited to someone who has traveled to more states in the country (they are VASTLY different) and who has more knowledge of the country’s history, culture and politics. This said, I will try my best to describe our very limited experiences as travelers in this fascinating country, as best as I can, including its (deep breath) welcoming people, gorgeous colors, astounding sights, stunning contradictions, mind boggling historical, economic and social structures that effect the course of the country’s rise into the modern age in fascinating ways, heart wrenching poverty, wealth of human ingenuity, great food, beautiful culture and rich spiritual history that captivates and draws individuals from all over the world. Phew. Ready??
To get started, here is an overview post (similar to another post HERE on the travel blog Legal Nomads) of the things that struck us as most notable while traveling through Goa, Hampi, Bangalore, Pyramid Valley, Pondicherry and Auroville. Upcoming posts will touch on some of the notable, but more difficult things we saw, but for now this post is going to stay positive, and, anyways, it is long enough! Enjoy!
THE BEST AND MOST NOTABLE, SOUTHERN INDIA:
1) The people we met
There are good and bad people everywhere but honestly, on our trip through India we did not meet anyone we didn’t like. AND many people spoke English (many of the ads and signs were written in English too since it is considered a secondary national language). Not having to worry too much about being understood/misunderstood made being a foreigner here much easier, and made it easier to get to know people as well. (Actually, there are languages abound in India. The national language is Hindi, but hundreds of other languages are spoken. We learned that many times people in one state may not be able to understand their neighbors in another state. On the other hand, many Indians speak multiple languages. Several people we met spoke something like four!)
But back to Indian hospitality. A great example of this occurred while we were on an overnight train trip from Hampi to Bangalore. The family in the bunk below mine was sharing a home-made dinner they had brought for the trip (lemon rice and some kind of spicy rice). Out of the blue they struck up a conversation and offered me some of their dinner. Then, when I ate it and loved it, they made sure I had seconds to boot. I spent the next hour playing with their little girl who climbed up in my bunk. They made sure to tell me that “Indians are really good neighbors”. Well I could see that! They were so sweet and it was a really fun cultural exchange.
We didn’t get any pictures of the family or the food but these guys hanging out on the train wanted their picture taken!
Most everyone we met at least tried to be helpful, even the auto rickshaw drivers. One day, while I was taking a ride by myself in Bangalore, the driver of mine (who I had carefully picked out as the nicest looking driver from the bunch lined up on the street…) seemed to be worried about me, a female traveler, alone. He warned me to not be afraid to get out of the rickshaw if someone was taking me the wrong way. He also kept quizzing me on knowing my landmarks on the drive back home ( “do you know your way back from here?”). It’s nice to be looked out for. It kind of makes up for all the times you have to be super cynical and wary so as not to be taken advantage of as a traveler.
We also spent a week visiting an Ashram (sort of a boarding home/orphanage for girls) in Bangalore. Each time we left, they always offered us dinner. On the last night when we agreed to stay for the meal, they cooked lemon rice especially for Mo since he said he liked it. The older girls also dressed me up in a Sari (worn for Indian weddings) and had a blast taking photos of me and Mo with our camera! Again, such a super fun exchange :)
The girls look very serious in pictures but most had smiles that lit up the dim room.
The biggest example of Indian hospitality for us, though, was set by the couple we stayed with while working at the Ashram. We met them through our yoga teacher. They are incredibly amazing people who opened their home to us with warm, welcoming arms. We definitely felt more motivated and inspired after our stay with them.
2) The monkeys
Whether it was Hanuman the monkey god or the actual, live creatures, we saw monkeys everywhere. Apparently they especially like to hang out around temples (which we visited a lot of!). One afternoon while we were climbing up the side of a cliff for some temple viewing, one monkey actually ran up to me and patted me down (looking for something in my pockets, or just a good time??) and another stole our water bottle right out of our hands. Another took a liking to my mostly empty coke can, tore it open with just her teeth, then handed it off to a monkey friend who we later saw scrambling up a cliff with the coke AND a pack of cigarettes in hand!
On another occasion we witnessed one thieving monkey steal an auto rickshaw driver’s keys, then climb away with them to the top of a temple. We were told the driver never retrieved the keys…..not sure how he got the vehical home….
Also, in India, it may be typical to have monkeys hanging around your apartment complex, even in a big city like Bangalore. The couple we stayed with noted multiple instances where a monkey opened their windows, climbed in the apartment, scared their little girls and stole fruit from their table! In fact, it happened while we were there. Imagine coming home and finding a monkey sitting on your kitchen counter! Imagine having a conversation with your husband/wife discussing the pros and cons of allowing the monkeys to come into the house as a possible way to help the children get over their fear of the animals. In Bangalore, it could happen.
3) The temples and churches
Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, there are beautiful places of worship all over India. In old Goa, a part of India previously ruled by the Portuguese, we saw Catholic churches built in beautiful, portuguese styled architecture. Sadly, many of these churches were in varying states of disrepair, although it did look as if some were in the process of being restored.
At the Basilica of the Bomb Jesus in Goa, we saw the relics of St. Francis Xavier. His body reportedly remained uncorrupted for 125 years after his death, with no embalming. Now, 400 plus years later, his relics still remain. Although you only have a limited view of the glass casket where he is displayed, there are pictures in the church that show his relics up close, and many people still come to send prayers to the saint.
We saw SO many Hindu temples. Some were simply tiny enclaves in the side of rocks, others were in houses or backyards, and yet others were fantastic, ornate buildings in cities or built into the side of cliffs. These temples are often dedicated to specific deities, or gods. We visited Hanuman temples, Ganesh temples, temples dedicated to the gods Shiva or Lakshmi, and a number of others. If you are not Hindu (like me) and would like to look at these deities from a perspective outside the Hindu religion, you can imagine them as symbolizing or invoking certain qualities of God: God who is a protector, God who is a remover of obstacles, God who is a healer, God who brings abundance, etc.
When we were able to go into these temples, we witnessed priests chanting or giving blessings to visitors. During blessings, sometimes holy water was given to the person being blessed (really this water is to drink, but we poured it on our heads since we were unsure about the quality, holy on not), or sugar or a blessed biscuit was given to them to eat. A red mark was then placed on their forehead. We were told this mark was to show that a person had been to the temple that day, was a symbol of the “third” or “inner” eye, and was to remind the wearer to keep God in the forefront of their thoughts. Generally people gave small donations before or after these blessings (about 10 rupees, or 16 cents American). In one temple we were allowed to sit down and play instruments with the musicians as men chanted!
Speaking of blessings, in India you can be blessed by an elephant! An interesting ploy to raise funds for the temple, elephants are trained to take change and bills from patrons, give it to their masters, then place their trunks on the benefactor’s head. Their interesting job aside, it seemed these elephants had a pretty good life. If they weren’t taking money for the temple, they were feasting on bananas and other fruit fed to them by tourists like us.
We also got a chance to take a bath with an elephant. Super fun, but I really hope he was treated well. It seemed like he was….
5) Holy Cow(s)!
Cows are sacred in India and allowed to roam free wherever they want. Cows in India are not only in the small towns, but on the beaches, in big cities, chomping on garbage on the sidewalk, walking the wrong way into oncoming traffic in the middle of a crazy busy road. Everywhere. By the end of our trip we were so used to it that we didn’t even notice them anymore. Yes, that means there is a lot of cow dung everywhere. Gross.
I also wondered how these road wandering cows didn’t get hit by cars or motorbikes more often, but people seemed pretty comfortable simply zooming on by them–or even driving right through herds of them! We were told though, that if you hit one driving as a tourist, don’t stick around….you may be swarmed by an angry mob of Indians! Maybe true, maybe not, but I’m glad that we didn’t have to find out.
6) Being a celebrity
In some parts of India it is still strange to see a westerner. As we were wandering around, visiting tourist attractions, Indians would come up to us and ask to take our picture, or to take pictures with us. This was mostly instigated by young men, and they mostly wanted my and the other girls’ pictures (sorry Mo). There were times though, that parents would shove their reluctant children over to us and start snapping away. Several times, entire families joined in the fun.
We were also taken to a school where the students preformed a show just for us! As much as we needed to leave afterwards, it took FOREVER to get out of there because EVERY child wanted our autograph! One day when I really am famous, my signature will be sold on ebay by an enterprising Indian student.
7) Walking onto the set of a Bollywood movie
Speaking of being a celebrity, While Mo and I were exploring on our own in Goa we found a basically “locals only” type of beach, where they just happened to be filming a Bollywood movie! A bunch of people were waiting on the beach to be extras. Had we gotten there a bit earlier maybe we could have been on film!
These beautiful circular shapes can be found all over the place; start noticing them, and you will see them everywhere. If you google “mandalas” you will find all sorts of descriptions as to their meanings and uses in relation to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and even modern psychology. They symbolize the universe. In our yoga program we were reminded that the universe is based in geometry (shapes created by molecules vibrating at certain frequencies). Mandalas are representations of this sacred geometry.
In Goa we stayed at a hotel called “The Mandala” and were surrounded by these beautiful symbols everyday for four weeks. In Hampi and Pondicherry, people drew mandalas outside their doors each day as symbols of “good luck”. A type of offering to the universe, I think.
My favorite mandala was one depicting a circle within a square. The circle represents “spirituality” and the square represents “the physical world”. The challenge is to balance the circle within the square so that the measurements of all four corners of the square are equal in relation to the circle. I think this somehow relates to the idea of “squaring the circle”, or trying to create a cirlce and a square of equal areas using a finite number of steps. Because of the transcendental nature of PI (or something like that), this is physically impossible, BUT this idea becomes a symbol and a teaching tool for the ultimate goal of our yoga practice: to balance the spiritual and the physical in our everyday lives.
8) Vegetarian food
I was never one to think of going veg before, but after being in India for six weeks and eating almost all vegetarian food, I can tell you that it feels much more natural. India showed me that meat does not need to be included in every meal for the meal to be completely yummy and satisfying. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the owner of the hotel where we stayed for our yoga retreat made FANTASTIC, completely vegetarian buffets for us every night. It also makes it much easier to eat vegetarian when most restaurants in the country serve more veg options than meat (even the Subway sandwich stores in India have separate customer lines for veg and non veg). If you like Indian food then you might agree with me. My favorite foods on this trip really were all the veg options: Dal (spicy lentils), Lemon Rice, Masala Dosa (thin crepe-like bread filled with potatos) and Veg Tali (Indian sampler plates with chapati or roti (breads), rice, vegetables, curd (yogurt), and several small chutneys.
9) Camping on a deserted beach
Okay, so the typical person traveling to India may have difficulty replicating this experience, but it was definitely one of the most notable for us. The owner of the yoga resort we stayed at in Goa (a British man who found something that he loved in india, had a vision of opening an extremely artistic space that provides a back-to-nature experience for travelers, engaged in a labor of love, and finally opened The Mandala), took our yoga group on a fantastic two day trip. The trip took us to a completely deserted beach, basically discovered only by him. He said there are loads of beaches like this up and down the coastline in Goa. Fantastic. Paradise. There was even a small waterfall in the bushes that we could rinse off in (and even drink from!), after swimming in the ocean and letting all the little zebra fish bite our toes!
We were also taken up a river by boat, given canoes and allowed to paddle about in the shallow waters. While we were doing this, someone was blasting Indian music from a house or temple on shore. It was one of those moments where you just think “wow, we are really in India!”( or country X ;) ) Too cool.
Following our day on the water, we had an authentic Indian dinner cooked by the owner of the little camping bungalows where we spent the night. The spicy chana masala (stewed chickpeas) was awesome! The sunset was beautiful. That, plus the food and company made it one of those fun nights that we will remember for a long time. However, later that night we did have some uninvited company in our bungalow: two giant black (and super fast!) spiders, literally as big as my hand, AND a snake that fell from the ceiling (really, how does that happen??) onto MY BED just as I was sitting on it, about to lay down to go to sleep! Generally I’m cool with bugs…and even snakes that keep their distance. I am not cool sleeping with monster spiders and snakes falling from the sky. Not cool with that at all.
10) Beautiful accent and the head bob
Seriously, I love the lilting intonation patterns of the Indian accent. I also really love the Indian head bob! So many Indians do it and it really is the general response for everything. As others have noted, it means: “okay”, “yes”, “no”, “I don’t know”, “maybe”, or just “hey”. At first this is kind of confusing as a response, but then you get used to it. As the type of person who sometimes inadvertently picks up other peoples gestures/accents/ways of speaking when I am around them for a while (I’m really not trying to copy you, I swear, I just can’t help it!), after 6 weeks in India I even found MYSELF giving the head bob as a response (Oh if only there were video of this….).
11) The kids and working at the Ashram
We were so lucky to be set up with an oportunity to hang out with a group of girls at an Ashram for a short time each day for a week. The Ashram is a type of boarding home/orphanage. The girls here are either sent by their parents because they can’t take care of them, or they are actual orphans. They go to regular school during the day, but cook, sleep and study together here at the Ashram the rest of the time. Once they are old enough (the girls here range from six years to about eighteen), they will generally be married and then go on to have a life with their husband and his family. Mo worked with the older girls and I worked with the yonger ones. Our time with them was mostly spent teaching basic English, working on crafts, singing songs and having fun!
Hampi is a town built within the the most amazing temple ruins and rock formations. It was really one of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen. I will leave its full description for another post though, because there are too many awesome pictures of it to share!
More on India to come!